When New York Times economics correspondent Conor Dougherty first moved back to San Francisco from the East Coast in 2014, he saw one major issue that related to everything: housing availability and affordability. Now, eight years later and covering housing on top of economics, Dougherty comes to Santa Cruz to discuss the continued concerns surrounding housing both locally and nationally.
Conor Dougherty grew up in San Francisco and Napa Valley in the late 1990s, but it wasn’t until he returned in the early 2010s that he saw the sea change of the area’s housing stock.
Dougherty — a longtime New York Times correspondent who covers economics and housing from his home base in Oakland — moved back to the area in 2014, right when many San Franciscans were protesting shuttle buses driving tech workers to their Silicon Valley headquarters. At the time, Dougherty had never seen anything like it, and he says that reflected an “overwhelming problem.”
“The story of tech was the story of housing, the story of homelessness was the story of housing — the feeling that [the Bay Area] had become this monoculture, from this kind of diverse place, was a story of housing,” he said. “It just seemed like there was no story here other than housing.”
Doughtery had previously covered shelter from New York City, as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal focusing on economics and real estate. But the changes to his hometown over the course of a few years led Dougherty to become more invested in reporting on the housing issue, and how it’s intertwined with so many other aspects of living here in the Bay Area. Just weeks before the pandemic lockdowns of March 2020, he released his first book, “Golden Gates: Fighting for Housing in America,” laying out his findings; now, he believes his thesis from years of research and reporting still rings true.
“There was a throbbing housing shortage that had, independent of the economy, created this huge problem — and, it turned out, things got worse than ever,” he said.
On Thursday, Dougherty will join Santa Cruz-based author Jonathan Franzen in conversation regarding the book, as well as the complex social and economic factors driving both housing and homelessness nationwide. The event — a kickoff to Santa Cruz Public Libraries’ Book to Action Program — will take place at the downtown branch; the event is free and open to the public; registration is required, and there is a virtual option.
As Dougherty prepares to make another move himself — from Oakland to Southern California — he spoke with Lookout regarding his reporting from the past eight years in the greater Bay Area, and what the continued housing crisis means for the future.
The following interview has been edited for clarity.
Lookout: What have been your own personal experiences with housing issues and affordability here in the Bay Area?
Conor Dougherty: Well, I kind of have a split existence, if you will. I grew up in San Francisco and went to high school in Napa Valley, and my parents have been on the same block in Noe Valley for 50 years. I know lots of people who are from here, and they have a variety of housing situations — living with family, fortunate enough to buy a home, holding onto a home from older relatives. But I do think there is this kind of uniquely bad experience for people who are showing up to this area — I do notice a pretty consistent cross-class difficulty, which could be true anywhere, but feels very true here.
When I moved back in 2014, it kind of reminded me of the late 1990s — the last time I had lived in San Francisco — and the dot-com boom. The city just felt like it was so angry. So I started writing about different aspects of housing, and that quickly led to stories about things like rent control, tenant fights and the state legislature pushing through new housing bills.
Lookout: What was it like to come back to the Bay Area and find housing for the first time in over a decade? How did it compare to New York?
Dougherty: What is interesting to me about the Bay Area — and one of the things that honestly worries me the most — is that it feels like the entire place, whether you’re in Santa Cruz or the North Bay — it feels like there’s no way you can hide from it.
Even though I understand and have empathy for the really personal feelings of people in specific neighborhoods that are being gentrified, I worry less about the gentrification of any one neighborhood than I do that the entire Bay Area is becoming largely inaccessible to anyone who isn’t fairly high income. When it gets to the point where you have an apartment in the Mission and get evicted, and your only option is to move 70 miles away, things start to break down.
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When my wife and I moved here, she thought, “Oh, we’re going to get a way nicer apartment, no place could be more expensive than New York.” And I told her we were moving to perhaps the one place that is more expensive.
Lookout: Your book, “Golden Gates: Fighting for Housing in America,” came out Feb. 18, 2020, just before the pandemic was in full swing. How did that period of the housing crisis compare to what has since transpired due to the pandemic?
Dougherty: When the book came out, I was on a book tour and then the tour ended early. Of course, my first thought was, “Oh my God, the world is falling apart,” and my second thought was, “Is anything in my book still relevant?”
It was a really interesting question for me, because a lot of people would say, while I was doing the research, this just has to do with the overheated economy, there’s not a housing problem. I thought, OK, well, we’re about to go into quite a recession. Let’s see how this turns out.
I did have this sort of moment where I was curious if everything in my book was going to remain relevant. I believed it would, because obviously, the thesis of the story is that there is this throbbing housing shortage that, independent of the economy, created this huge problem. And it turned out, things got worse than ever.
Things have gotten much, much worse, in terms of evictions, homelessness, housing prices shooting up, the lack of rent falling, and I think that’s vindicated the thesis: We aren’t able to respond to demand and handling [the demand for housing]. But, at the same time, there has been a lot going on.
Lookout: What are some things we have learned from the pandemic in relation to housing, i.e., ways to increase housing stock or affordability?
Dougherty: At the beginning of the pandemic, a lot of people talked about problems with density. One of the things we learned really quickly in the pandemic is that density is actually not that bad for the spread of disease. But crowding is. I think there were a lot of pre-existing problems that COVID just exposed, one of which was extremely crowded housing.
Lookout: What are some of the laws making the most impact on housing development in the state?
Dougherty: We have over the past several years made it much easier to build what are called accessory dwelling units, which are backyard cottages. And if you don’t know what it looks like in Santa Cruz, if you go to L.A. or San Diego, and a little bit in the Bay Area, they are building them like crazy.
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When I went down to San Diego about a year ago, I just couldn’t believe it. It was the first time where I’ve been writing a story that I was like, “Wow, I can physically see something that absolutely was not here.” There are neighborhoods you can go to in San Diego where multiple houses on a block are building a pretty significant structure in the backyard, and they absolutely would not have been doing that three or four years ago.
If you look at the share of housing that is being built in California right now, 10 to 12% of it is accessory dwelling units, and it was basically zero like four or five years ago. So that has been the most direct cause and effect I think I’ve ever seen in housing legislation.
Lookout: What are the discussions you’re hearing from the field about building up or creating the opportunity for more housing?
Dougherty: It’s very difficult to change things, particularly the structure of a city, once a bunch of people live there. Democracy doesn’t really have an answer for how to build large public works projects that already exist. I think it’s hard to inspire change to existing infrastructure.
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But at the same time, I think people in California have started to recognize that we have some pretty significant housing problems, and that many of our social problems are things like people’s kids leaving the state due to this. I think you’ve started to see people becoming a little bit more welcoming to housing, but I’ve not seen a place where, broadly speaking, everyone’s really enthusiastic about housing.
I want people to feel like inaction isn’t an option, and that we should be focused on solutions. If we start to attack this problem in a more multifaceted way, and sort of try to think of it as a disease that needs a cocktail of drugs, rather than just one drug, I think we’ll start to make some progress on it. But right now, it feels like people are kind of eating within the Bay Area, huddled in sort of ideological corners. And I think that is a recipe for disaster — if you really go after just one solution, you’re destined to fail.